When I visited Silver Dollar City (SDC) in 2008 I wasn’t sure what I was expecting; just another fun filled theme park with fast rides, junk food and long waiting lines I surmise but I was in for a big surprise. SDC was nothing like I’d imagined and exceeded all expectations filled with wonder, awe, beauty, culture and of course wild rides.
There are theme parks and then there are theme parks; the theatrical, thrill ride and comic/fantasy ‘world within world’ style parks such as Alton Towers, Chessington or the Disney parks at the top of the pyramid of social consciousness when it comes to such attractions, then mid-size or niche parks like this, Parc Astérix or Dollywood and then travelling fun fairs or static peer amusement parks/promenades. I’m no theme park junkie but I have been to my share of them and can say that I was the most impressed, had the best walkabout at SDC and found it the most versatile in that it really had something for everyone be they singles, couples, friends, families, clubs, young to old; some parts were more mobility/wheelchair/pushchair friendly than others but where one area might be difficult there was another to visit.
SDC is based in the locale of Branson in the state of Missouri, US Route 76. It’s in a mountainous area called The Ozarks or The Ozark Plateau which is a place of stunning natural beauty, mountain greenery and long drives. Having a theme park there makes it a ‘marvel’, a term which I shall come back to in a bit 🙂 At the time of writing it seems I’m right on the cusp of change as one of the signature adventures has just been retired and a new set of rides being introduced however in this review I will include all the parts I remember in tribute and insight into the nature of the place.
Also please note that SDC is an umbrella name for the theme park, a cruise boat ride/dinner show, a water park and an accommodation with log cabins and spaces for RVs/caravans and camping. This review is purely for the theme park. That said there’s so much to see and do there that I’ll have to describe the parts in order of what I personally liked otherwise it would just have to be a runthrough of what I visited in order and I don’t remember it that way.
THE NATURAL LOOK
Due to the location of this park there’s a real MidWest to Southern country feel to it, everything looks rustic with old fashioned charm and encompassed within the landscape. The owners/organizers incorporated the rides so that they don’t look superimposed and created a late 19th century decor/facade for all the shop and stage/ride fronts, many of the staff are outfitted in period costume and most of the attractions are open air so you feel a bit like an explorer. Obviously there’s a heck of a lot of machinery, infra-structure and use of fuel for a place like this though they’ve hidden it adeptly.
As you enter the park unfortunately the first thing you are faced with and have to pass through is the main gift shop which is more unfortunate for people who like to shop and those with kids who automatically want to buy things. This was the only selling point that I didn’t like but of course it makes business sense; just remind those with roving eyes and loose wallets/purses that they will see the shop again on the way out. That said there were some lockers and a ‘buy now, collect later’ service for souvenirs and photos so that you wouldn’t have to carry them around with you and constantly put aside at each ride.
THE ‘MARVEL CAVE’
I’m going to list and briefly describe the other attractions in groups/lists later but this one deserves a section all of its own.
Missouri is known as a ‘cave state’ with thousands of them so great for intrepid explorers, spelunkers/potholers and cautious visitors and The Marvel cave is indeed a marvel as any cave is in my opinion. It’s a beautiful but narrow and steep descent via a compact stairway/hole in the floor of the gift shop down into a splendid cavern of serene space and calm. In the early days there had been a cable railway/lift for visitors but the place wasn’t so popular at the time, now it’s the stairs – I don’t remember them being very slippery but footwear with good grip/walking shoes/hiking boots are best in a place like this and that applies to the park too since trainers get soaked and slippers/sandals aren’t exactly health & safety friendly.
Originally the cave had been ‘bought’ by miners hoping to find lead ore and other materials they could use, what they found was lots and lots of bat guano as the native Americans had already known and called the place ‘Devil’s Den’ . Unfortunately for the miners they found nothing they were interested in and even the walls that they’d thought were made of marble (hence they had changed the name from ‘Devil’s Den’ to ‘Marble Cave’ ) turned out to be limestone. The cave was quickly sold and turned into a tourist attraction. Plans to build a mountain village/town on top/around the surface never really came to fruition as there was little interest and therefore little development. It was decades later that access to the cave was re-vamped and a reproduction period inspired village (later to become the town themed park we know today) made to bring in more tourists and the name changed again to ‘Marvel Cave’.
All that time the cave sat there as caves tend to do in slow growth and is now a unique selling point of the park. At approx 300ft and 600 steps below the surface it’s one of the US’ deepest and a national landmark; it’s atmospherically lit by artificial lighting but bright enough to see clearly and ambient in temperature. I say ambient in that many caves are generally the opposite to the surface (unless a lot of wind passes through), I visited in August and it was very hot so going into the cave was cooling and invigorating though at the same time quite moist since there’s fair bit of water inside. In the cold of Autumn/Winter it would probably feel a little warmer. Thankfully since we’d gone into the cave first instead of at the end of our park visit I still managed to come out decent looking in the paid-for photo we took/bought 😉 (for $10 I think though there’s a park deal for multiple photos, it was ready to pick up a few hours later).
Due to the nature of tours in general they are not recommended for people with breathing/mobility difficulties, bad backs and joints etc. That said for those that are unfit the steps are long and quite arduous/nerve wracking so the surroundings and pace has to be focused on but once in the Cathedral Room the air is more refreshing than the surface, I would say cleaner but with so many tourists all day everyday and it’s not as wide as it is high so I found the air quality to be lesser than other caves I’ve been to where I could fill my lungs and they along with my nasal passages could practically weep tears of joy at the crisp clarity in comparison to city air.
HOW TO DECIDE WHERE TO GO?
This is a quandary I find on visiting theme parks; what to visit first, in what order, how to fit it all in, how to allocate for waiting times etc. As with most of these parks the main ticket area/entrance comprises of ATMs, bathrooms, customer service and here they have info specifically for disabled access and screening procedures for the rides. This area then leads to the Main Street or central area of the park making up a vital meeting point and base of explorations. Also in line with such places SDC is circular in nature so you pick and choose where you want to go or just go around without worrying about having to pass through all the places you might not want to visit.
The current map is available from their website here:
Arts & crafts:
There’s a lot of skilled artisans at SDC, with small dedicated buildings/work stations cum shops devoted to their craft. The buildings serve as both functional and demonstration areas where the craftspeople actually make things for use at the park and sell gift items.
As a visitor you can watch them at their work, ask questions and sometimes take part (which is always fun) and in keeping with the park they are what I know as ‘prim-tech’ or primitive/older technology where techniques are based from that period and have been maintained. All the items are handcrafted and individual in that respect so make lovely keepsakes/gifts.
The crafts include ‘culinary arts’ cooking, baking, glass cutting and blowing, pottery, candy making, wood carving, blade making, a smithy/Blacksmith and leatherwork. Alongside these are gift shops with local art – quite a bit of cowboy/Midwestern paraphernalia – and I vaguely recall seeing musicians dotted about.
Note – This area of the park was quite hot both in activity and temperature given all the bustling, crowds watching and heat given off from all the fires for the work.
Other than Marvel Cave there were a few original and unique features to SDC such as an old log cabin/homestead replete with singing band and backyard barn petting farm (perhaps were some of the ‘food’ and leather comes from), a church that still has Sunday and wedding services and a school house where guests are invited to sit at a desk and learn about school in 19th century.
In addition to those there were a couple of ‘natural’ features which I loved including a giant swinging rope bridge which really fit into the landscape (see photo) and is magnificent at its height. The other was an island only seen from a river boat ride which gave you a tantalising glimpse through canopies at animatronic deer and other creatures within, I think only part of it was open to visitors as a play area. Speaking of which this is a strange feature of the park because it’s not a current ride but the only reference I could find of something similar was a ride called ‘Jim Owens Float Trip’ that shut down in 1981! But I know that my companion and I got on a multi-level passenger river boat and travelled around a lake/river looking at an island that was not really visible from other parts of the park and people waved to us from the shore! Weird.
Thrill Rides and Adventure Playgrounds for kids and ‘big kids’ alike:
Amazingly enough for the theme park I haven’t mentioned the usual and original to the park rides but that just goes to show how much they had on offer as a place for all ages and varying interests.
Currently there are 30+ rides/adventures available, I can’t remember how many there were at the time but there were a number of theme park mainstays such as the steam train railway that travels around the park for easier mobility and sightseeing, a log flume, a mine train, vertical drop, river rapids, a shoot the targets ride through scenario, a large spinning swings carousel, swinging boats/ships and a giant arm swing. In line with many fun fairs and smaller parks there are the hearts and diamonds, teacups, tamer versions of spinning teacups but animals instead of cups and little tykes ‘coasters’ aka slower versions.
Rides that you don’t find everywhere include 5 roller coasters featuring thrilling speeds of upto 66mph, drops, turns, loops, cobra-rolling, ‘G-force’ speed and interesting backdrops from the luscious surround area to an indoor theme of bandits and the town being on fire. There are currently two wooden coasters though there was one when I visited are popular and another coaster called ‘Powderkeg’ was inspired by the initial miners of Marvel cave who removed the nitrogen rich bat guano and shipped it off to mills to be made into Black/gunpowder before realizing the cave didn’t have any marble walls. That ride will launch you from 0-53mpg in 2.8 seconds and keep you flying to the end!
In addition to the usual water rides there were/are quite a few water based adventure rides and areas which I thought were either unique or a very well done take on the genre. For example one adventure playground for kids and adults that will be retired on the 3rd August was the ‘Geyser Gulch’ (see photo), stylized like a giant treehouse and apparently called the ‘World’s Largest Treehouse’ but built on platforms and stilts on a lake. It was a like a funhouse gone mad where everyone was playing against everyone with water cannons/guns with swivel action and balls that could be shot through tubes pointing various sections whilst people ran and climbed through the maze like playground amidst sprinklers and general craziness. It was built in 1997 and a great way to cool off or let off some steam (without getting wild obviously and picking on others).
Other water rides not mentioned yet were/are ‘River Blast’ which is separate to the river rapids though similar but both the passengers and the spectators have water guns. Then there was a raft ride which again I can’t find reference to but it was basically like a log flume in which you lay down in a sort of rubber dinghy and held on to the sides whilst careening down the slopes/tubes. I remember that the queue for this one meant climbing stairs and that one of the steps, a wide one just beneath the start of the ride was a scale. Each raft had a minimum weight restriction of 300lbs so couples and stragglers would often need to pair up with others in line and even though quite a few of the rides were heavy on the splash factor this one meant getting totally, utterly soaked! There was no getting away from it and it was hilarious! Definitely one for the middle of the day or when hot so that you could dry off quickly and not get your car/coach seats wet. It was also a ride with a persistent feeling that the raft was going to topple over!
In regards to child friendly rides; they were spread throughout and along with kid/adult friendly rides/areas but there was/is also a specific section of the park for them currently called ‘Half Dollar Holler’ which has all the playground staples such as climbing frames/nets, sand, treetop trails, fun houses and merry-go-round.
In general I wasn’t let down by the thrill rides, I didn’t find the queues too long or slow and though not generally a water ride person I enjoyed the ones I went on.
Whilst I didn’t stop and stay for any shows it was great getting a glimpse at them and the sounds interesting! There’s a lot of space and attractions dedicated to this with multiple stages and multi-purpose buildings showcasing all kinds of performers within the park theme from acrobats, a saloon with singing bartenders, Country/Country & Western music, Bluegrass, Gospel and even Cajun. The building range from smaller stages to an amphitheatre/dinner theatre and opera house so big or small, local band to musical they seek to enthral.
Places to eat:
There were many eateries (not including vending machines) in the park including buffets, grills, cafes and stands including kids meals, US patriotic dishes, cakes/pastries/breads, an ice cream factory, popcorn/pretzels/nachos, sandwiches, pizza etc. Most of the food on offer was pretty heavy and not exactly healthy though nothing unusual for a theme park but without the big name brands. I can’t say there was much in the way of healthy vegetarian let alone vegan friendly foods but I was really interested in the traditionally cooked veg and specialty potato dishes made in massive ironware skillets over real fires. Unfortunately though it didn’t look as if they were using separate stirring utensils for the various pans so a no-no for me.
Other than the entrance/exit giftshop with the customary t-shirts, caps, mugs, stationary, keyrings, posters etc there were a plethora of speciality shops in the park. Due to the artisan aspect many had traditional wares and were an experience in themselves to peruse. They included a number of patriotic shops and additionally a shop for all kinds of fruit preserves/butters/jams, old fashioned photography, paintings, candles, musical instruments, wooden cooking utensils, clothing, jewellery, lye soap, home furnishings, toys, magic shop and a traditional ‘general store’. In keeping with modern souvenir shops though still in the vintage style there sweet shops, a gizmo/gadget ‘inventor’ shop, a Christmas shop and others where customers could make their own items such as making teddy bears.
Located next to certain rides were ride specific merchandise shops.
On the whole based on my experience I would give the park 5/5, I didn’t sample the food nor used the bathrooms but bearing in mind the aim is to provide an authentic experience of Midwestern hospitality/living sans the rides and people of colour/gender issues I think they’ve done an impressive job. I really appreciated the setting of the park (my other favourite visited US attraction being Rock City, Chattanooga, Georgia), the wooden or wooden facade buildings and quirky features.
However having read other people’s reviews online it seems that staff are mostly Christian/Catholic – why does that matter and is it all that surprising? I was born and raised in mixed-religious/secular areas of London so am used to getting on with various beliefs but from some of the reviews I read it seems they like to profess and show their faith/give praise quite a bit though I can’t tell whether the authors meant outside of the faith based shows or not. I didn’t come across that myself but then I didn’t really get to talk to staff (other than one who couldn’t see any advantages in being short – ha it’s a great advantage for caving whereas I consistently had to warn my companion to mind his head) and we didn’t see any of the shows so I may have missed it. I personally would have found that offputting since I make a study of knowledge, belief and changes therein and even though I don’t mind academically or emotively learning about religion/belief systems to uncover truths, patterns and falsehoods I wouldn’t consider a theme park open to all and not religion based such as a biblical attraction a place to come up against religion/religious people, of any kind. Of course on the other hand that would be a drawing point for many.